Sgt. 1st Class Vincent “Rocco” Vargas is an Army Reserve drill sergeant. If the people he shapes into soldiers don’t know of him when they report for basic training, they are highly likely to know all about him by the time they’re through.
That’s because Vargas, 36, is one of a new brand of heroes among soldiers, wounded warriors and veterans. He’s known for his gritty and humorous insider’s take on going to war, losing your buddies, survivor’s guilt and working to get it right once you’re out of uniform.
A veteran of three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment’s 2nd Battalion based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Vargas has vaulted to fame as an actor, writer, producer, blogger, podcaster, poet, business entrepreneur and social media animal by publicly sharing his Army, work and personal experiences with brutal honesty to an ever-growing fan base.
Raunchy and charismatic, the tragicomic Vargas uses a variety of public platforms to take his fans on a tour of the ups and downs of life. He puts patriotism—and his love of tacos front and center, and uses all of his heavily tattooed, 6-foot, 230-pound frame and outsized facial expressions to tackle tough issues like suicide, divorce and post-traumatic stress disorder, along with lighter topics such as cooking, physical fitness and friendship.
By teaming up with a legion of like-minded friends from across the military, Vargas has expanded his public persona with his military-inspired clothing company Article 15, and by partnering with a host of freedom-inspired tobacco, whiskey, coffee, apparel and personal-grooming brands. He starred in the veteran-produced feature film Range 15, as well a Drinkin’ Bros Live: The Shaved Eagle Tour and Helen Keller vs. Nightwolves. He also wrote, starred in and produced The Long Way Back, a short, semi-autobiographical drama on survivor’s guilt and suicide prevention. His next role is in FX’s Mayans MC, a spinoff of the popular cable-TV crime series Sons of Anarchy, now in production.
Vargas is living his dream of becoming an actor. The son of a Los Angeles fireman, he grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, and played college baseball until he screwed up and lost the scholarship. Expecting his first kid, estranged from his wife and serving food, Vargas watched the U.S. invasion of Iraq on TV and got the bug to serve his country. He became an Army Ranger at age 22 and the leader he always knew he was found a place to blossom.
“Young soldiers came to me to ask about stuff like buying their first car, paying bills; I was on a level at the same rank, but older in maturity and life experiences,” he said, noting that he received leadership awards at every Army school he went to.
After he left active duty, he entered the Army Reserve and worked in special operations with the Arizona Department of Corrections and then the U.S. Border Patrol. In 2013, with his business ventures thriving and the wild popularity of his videos, podcasts, blogs and film career, he quit to be a full-time entertainer.
Now, he gets as many as 10 messages every day from among thousands of followers, soldiers and veterans who want help with PTSD, career moves and relationships. They think he’s funny, but Vargas knows why they come to him.
“For some reason, they see me on a video and they want to know more about me. My expression, emotion, rawness comes through,” said Vargas, who puts it all out there, good and bad.
He said leadership has always been a comfortable role, so he talks openly and seriously about suicide and wants people to think more closely about its ripple effects.
“When they think that’s going to take the pain away, all they’ve done is projected that pain to other people,” he said. It’s hard to give advice; he admits he doesn’t always have the answer. “In just the past year, three of my close friends didn’t reach out to me and did commit suicide and it confuses me sometimes, makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. Maybe what I’m doing is not helping at all so it’s always ... tough.”